This guide is for all the wayward souls who reject the constraints their little homes place on them. The cook determined to apply the hallowed black crisscrosses of outdoor cooking’s best appliance, despite butting heads with questions of federal, state and municipal law. The grillmaster operating in a grill-unfriendly space. There are products for you. Admittedly, the category of small-space grills is rich in quantity but rife with mediocrity. But cheap materials and lazy design are never acceptable, and these grills prove you don’t need a bunch of space to own a grill that gives a damn.
What to Know Before Buying
Consider what you’re cooking.
Do you want a grill to simply char meats and veggies? Do you want the ability to smoke? Or, more important — do you prioritize time-efficiency or fuel-efficiency? These are all questions you should strive to have answers to prior to making a buying decision, because most grills, especially of the mini variety, are more specialists than they are all-around appliances. For example, if you care about charring meat and doing it as fast as humanly possible in the tiniest space possible, an infrared burner grill might be a decent choice (or just a blowtorch, frankly). But if you want to get a fish just right, or smoke a rack of ribs, it’s not the best option.
Treat BTUs with a grain of salt.
Flaunting a grill’s BTU levels has become akin to blowing up thread count numbers with sheets — in other words, it’s generally horseshit. Advertised BTUs are a measurement of a grill’s peak heat output, which presents its own problems — are you always going to crank your grill to maximum power? How quickly are you going to burn fuel (if using propane) if you push it that high?
It’s generally agreed upon that 80–100 BTUs per square inch of cooking space is plenty for most grills (infrared may be lower due to differences in fuel and power efficiency). Significant numbers above this generally indicate excessive energy consumption, and perhaps the product’s marketing needs being more important than its functionality. Excessive BTU levels also might point to faults in other areas of the grill’s design, namely the fit of the lid and materials used. A grill with a shoddy lid that’s made out of cheap metal polymers will need higher heat output to keep its heat.
How much cooking space is enough?
It’s entirely obnoxious that many grills online don’t have their capacity listed in a more easily contextualized number. Two-hundred square-inches — so what? Convert the brand’s vagueness into real numbers with a very simple bit of math — the average burger should take up 20 square inches of space on a grill, with an extra half-inch or so of breathing room included in that.
Keep plastics and thin, painted metals to a minimum — it’s fairly common for grills to advertise a completely stainless steel body and in fact use super thin, heat-dispersing steel, or simply use steel of a very low grade. To get a better picture, check out the Spruce Eats guide to the tricks manufacturers may try to slip on you. Keep an eye on the material and design of the grates as well, knowing that cast-iron grates are incredible for searing but will require seasoning and routine maintenance similar to its skillet brethren (unless it’s porcelain-coated, in which case regular cleanliness practices suffice).
Another good rule of thumb: buy products with the least areas for a malfunction to occur. This means as few screws, bolts, buttons, cables and notches as possible while still remaining user-friendly. The more that can break, the more that will break.
Don’t break the law.
You should know whether you can grill in your space, especially if it’s an apartment or condo. The laws, for their part, are vexing. Check out this article for starters, then Google your state and local laws just in case. If you rent, it’s worth checking your lease and saving yourself a heavy fine.
Weber Smokey Joe Charcoal Grill (and New Grates)
Weber’s dirt cheap 14.5-inch charcoal grill has earned its spot in the pantheon of cookware. If you haven’t cooked on or eaten from a Smokey Joe, you have been robbed of something nearly and dearly American. It’s coated in a porcelain enamel, it’s sturdy on three legs, it’s less than 10 pounds and has two vents for airflow control (open for ripping hot, closed for slower cooks). It has enough cook space for three big steaks or six to seven burgers, and the thing is $40. That’s retail! It’s a dumb decision to sell something this good this cheap, and it’s even dumber not to pick one up for your backyard.
Bonus: Pickup cast-iron grill grates to take it to the next level. They gather and hold more heat and produce a far greater sear than the nickel grates that come standard.
Char-Griller Akorn Jr. Kamado Grill
As far as value against the competition goes, Char-Griller’s Akorn Jr. is as good as it gets. It is kamado grill, which essentially means it’s going to use wood or charcoal, hold heat extremely well and is built into a shape (typically egg or egg-adjacent) that’s conducive to constant air circulation. This basically makes it a smoker and pizza oven built into one. Where most kamados are ceramic (think the Big Green Egg), the Akorn Jr.’s body is built with triple-walled steel (powder-coated outside, porcelain-coated inside), making for a more durable grill that’s also more maneuverable. As with most grills on this list, the Akorn Jr.’s grates are cast iron, so the searing will be just as good as the smoking, depending on your culinary mood.
Mr. Steak Infrared Grill
Frankly, infrared grills aren’t for everyone. They’re typically best suited for high heat, short cook time cooking endeavors (think heavy char in just a few minutes) and not a whole lot else. But for some, that’s a grill’s purpose, so we arrive at Mr. Steak. At 30 pounds, it’s just light enough to tote for a short walk (up and down stairs or to a campsite) and it’s only two feet wide, so it fits rather easily in tighter spaces. It also reaches a rather extraordinary 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and does so quickly. It’s made of reasonable quality stainless steel, and while its steel V-grates leave something to be desired, the speed with which you’re able to connect a mini propane tank, punch the instant ignite and reach four-digit temperatures can’t be ignored.
Weber Q Liquid Propane Grill
Weber dominates the small grilling market and the Weber Q series proves it. It couldn’t be more different than Smokey Joe, but its strength and value are just as clear. At first glance, it looks like a mildly chintzy product — it is not. Enameled cast-iron grates build up the heat for super-effective charring. A cast-aluminum body and lid provide balanced heat inside the grill, and are completely rust-resistant. Its got enough grill space for nine burgers (with room to spare), sports foldable mini counter space and rocks a quick-start electric ignition. This is a grill of enduring convenience and is compact enough to stow in a closet or under a countertop. It’s also ready to go out of the box.
Fuego Element Gas Grill
This is less of a grill to stow away and more a grill that takes up as little space on your patio or porch as possible. Seeing as it can pull temperatures north of 500 degrees in 5 minutes or less (with max temps upward of 650), it also takes up as little of your time as possible. It comes with enameled cast-iron grates standard, wheels for a bit of mobility and a cleverly offset lid handle, so opening and closing doesn’t threaten to burn off any arm hair. The Fuego can effectively grill around 16 or 17 burgers at a time, and, if it matters to you at all, was designed by one of Apple’s former chief computer designers, Robert Brunner.
Traeger Ranger Wood Pellet Grill
As I said in my full review of Traeger’s Ranger grill and smoker, it may very well be the best tailgate smoker a reasonable amount of money can buy. That also makes it ideal for the kid-sized home owner/renter. This grill is really best used as a smoker, but with porcelain-coated cast-iron grates it can achieve grill marks and char in due time. The Ranger runs off electricity, but it is fueled by wood pellets. This means that’s it’s fairly idiot proof as well: plug the built-in meat thermometer into what you’re cooking, load the grill with pellets and fire it up. It’s that simple.